August 27, 2013


Falsely advertised as “The First Drama of Juvenile Delinquency to Reach the Screen”, Where Are Your Children (1944) was just another attention grabber for Poverty Row studio Monogram, who lured William Randolph Hearst into promoting their ruse. They took another tack with Kilroy Was Here (1947), leveraging the popular WWII graffiti meme into a college campus comedy starring the two ex-child stars Jackie Coogan (The Kid) and Jackie Cooper (The Champ). Though no-budget quickies, they were directed by the talented William Nigh and Phil Karlson (The Phenix City Story), respectively, the studio hiring a deep roster of talent both young and old. Both titles have been released in unrestored but watchable DVDs by the Warner Archive, and are fascinating documents of the resourceful Monogram standard operating procedure.

CCF05062012_0000Juvenile delinquency had been a popular topic for bourgeois hand-wringing since the early 1930s, resulting in films like the RKO melodrama Are These Our Children (1931). Proving the conversation had shifted little since then, a 1943 issue of LOOK magazine ran a photo essay with the same title: “Are These Our Children? – Can We Keep Them Out of Trouble?”. The Val Lewton unit at RKO, fresh off of Curse of the Cat People(’44), exploited parental nightmares by adapting the essay into Youth Runs Wild (1944). Eager to leap onto the trend, Monogram set Where Are Your Children (’44) into production concurrently, drafting former child star Jackie Cooper as the lead, just before his induction into the Army.

The Office of War Information was wary of these lascivious message movies, fearing, as the AFI Catalog reported, that, “they could be used as anti-American propaganda by the Germans.” Eventually they were cleared “in the interest of homefront welfare”, due to the intervention of the director of War Services at the Federal Security Agency, Charles P. Taft. The influence of William Randolph Hearst also must have been felt, as he was running a series on juvenile delinquency in his chain of newspapers, and was eager to fuel the hysteria. He instructed his editors to support the release of Where Are Your Children?, guaranteeing positive reviews and long runs at theaters. It’s unclear why he threw his weight behind the cheaper production, but it has merit even beyond its historical curiosity.

Cooper plays a version of himself, a rich kid close to entering the army. Partying away his last few free nights at a hot jazz club, he spies a poor hash waitress (Gale Storm) across the street and pitches woo. When military duty calls, Cooper flees and forgets, but Storm carries a torch, and falls in with a rough crowd while trying to track him down. Murder and mayhem ensues.

In the nightclub scenes Nigh uses chiaroscuro lighting to create an atmosphere of furtive pleasure, as well as to hide the flimsy set. The joint oozes pheremones as jitterbuggers jiggle and Nigh pushes his camera close to a handle of bootleg rye1146630_10151828220861563_1045652496_n hiding under a newspaper. When pockmarked teens exclaim, “let’s squirm, worm”, you know things are about to get dirty. As secretive decadance dominates the club, the diner is presented as transparent and pure. Storm is framed alone in the front window, as Cooper gazes from across the street. On the otherwise pitch black street, she seems to be performing on a stage built only for him. He considers it an invitation, and their flirt extends the performance. They practically dance out the door. When Storm is thrust into the teeth of the juvenile justice system, she’ll have to use fancier footwork to get out alive. Gutter girl Opal (Evelynne Eaton) is convinced Storm ratted her out, and corners her in a holding room brandishing a chair. Soon the whole joint erupts in chaos as a brutal brawl destroys every last splinter of wood in the area. A sexual release by other means, this violent spasm is a shocker even to modern eyes, and the requisite return to law and order doesn’t quite squelch its afterglow.


Kilroy Was Here (’47) is more straitlaced stuff, turning a ubiquitous bit of WWII graffiti into a plot hinge for an amiable college campus comedy. “Kilroy Was Here”, emblazoned under the figure of a large nosed peeper looking over a ledge, became a running joke for serviceman, who used it to mark their territory. A version even appears in the WWII Memorial in Washington D.C. Having entered the popular lexicon, Monogram decided to capitalize on it with a film, with the added bonus of teaming Jackie Cooper with Jackie Coogan, the two ex-child stars. That gave exhibitors multiple ways in which to promote it.

Coogan and Cooper play GIs and best friends who embark on diverging paths once out of the service. Coogan plays Pappy Collins, a streetwise scrapper happy to make his living as a taxi cab repairman. Cooper is the ill-fated Johnny Kilroy, eager to take advantage of the GI Bill and climb the social ladder. Kilroy goes to college, but is mistaken for the “Kilroy” the graffiti is based on, and becomes a local celebrity. This gains him entry into a blue nose frat and the attentions of gal reporter Connie (Wanda McKay). It also makes him lose touch with Pappy and his taxi hack pals, so the truth must be revealed.

Karlson is less inventive than Nigh with the Monogram limitations, framing everything in static master shots to keep ahead of the punishing schedule. There are odd bursts of energy here and there though, like a waltz in a parking lot and the stuffy frat ball that turns into a back alley slobberknocker. It was not enough to secure public attention. Kilroy Was Here was supposed to be the first of six in a series, but no sequels were ever produced. Where scary teens are eternal, inside Army jokes turned out to be ephemeral. No matter, as there were more films to make and trends to milk, as Monogram Pictures made 33 other movies in 1947.


February 8, 2011

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With little fanfare, MGM re-started its moribund DVD burn-on-demand service last month. MGM originally offered 27 titles through Amazon’s CreateSpace service in early 2010, only to encounter complaints about cropped aspect ratios. Then last November, it was quietly announced that they were switching to Allied Vaughn’s MOD technology, and making it available to a variety of retailers (now including Movies UnlimitedOldies.comScreen Classics, and Amazon). It’s unclear whether the original MOD titles released in non-anamorphic or cropped versions (like Cold Turkey), will receive updates, but to be safe, I’d stick to the new releases and check the Home Theater Forum for news. The initial release slate is 50, with “an expansion plan to release more than 400 new-to-DVD titles within the next 18 months” (press release here). The first batch of these were rolled out in January, so to get a sense of this promising new venture’s quality, I picked up director Phil Karlson’s caustic film noir, 99 River Street (1953).

(Note:  The For the Love of Film Noir Blog-a-thon, hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren, takes place Feb. 14th – 21st to raise money for the Film Noir Foundation‘s efforts to restore Cy Endfield’s The Sound of Fury (1950). I’ll be contributing next week, so consider the following a teaser.  Donate here.)

Presented in a fine progressive transfer from a pristine inky black print, it’s clear MGM is taking their MOD program seriously this time around. [UPDATE: DVD Beaver found the transfer to be interlaced. I didn’t notice this in playback, but they’re always right about these things]. There are no extras. Amazon is offering it at a slight discount for $17.99, while the other sites have it pegged at $19.99.

Made a year after Karlson and lead actor John Payne teamed up for Kansas City Confidential (1952, where Payne’s ex-con is set up to take the fall for an armored car robbery), 99 River Street is a story of failure and provisional redemption. In this version Payne plays Eddie Driscoll, a washed up pug who ritualistically watches the highlights of his championship bout defeat, in which his eye was permanently damaged, hoping for a catharsis that never comes. Repeatedly shown in oblique angle close-ups, his right eye twitches like a maggot in a slab of beef. His wife Pauline, played with icy disdain by Peggie Castle, is a cinched-up former showgirl who yearns for the high life and sees an out in the machinations of  thief Victor Rawlins (Brad Dexter).

Eddie’s meat-headed obsessiveness and Pauline’s extravagant boredom are set up in the opening sequence. It begins on the title bout, a barrage of low-angle jabs that ends with Eddie knocked bloody, his face caressing the bottom rope. Then Karlson cuts to a close-up of the TV, the announcers talking about “The Great Fights of Yesterday.” The camera then dollies back to get the full TV on-screen, then swiftly pans to left to Eddie. Now robbed of his physicality, this has-been still winces at every blow. Kalrson then cuts to a reverse angle, revealing the rest of the shabby room, with Pauline, ignored, seething at the dinner table. Their eyes don’t meet until she turns off the TV, finishing the announcer’s phrase, “Next week…Driscoll will be driving a taxi.” Her words drip with venom, and understandably so, but she ends up in the arms of Rawlins, a reptilian creep who seems to devour her whole with his eyes.

Enraptured with visions of escape from her working class life, Pauline falls for Rawlins’ sordid designs. His attraction to her becomes increasingly sadistic, which only become clear in rhyming images of her scarf, at the beginning and midpoint of the film.

The cuckolded Eddie does drive that cab, barely making ends meet, and hangs out at a diner with another failure, an out-of-work actress played by Evelyn Keyes with intentionally grating brilliance, whose whole life revolves around performance. Her overactive eyebrows eventually sucker Eddie in to be an unwitting co-star in an elaborate performance. It’s an incredible sequence that pivots on a long take, close-up monologue of Keyes re-enacting a murder she claims to have committed, which Driscoll believes to be real. Then the hoax is revealed – it was all an an audition to convince a play’s backers of her skill – and Driscoll’s subterranean rage bursts, knocking out the play’s director and a few of its producers. Keyes, staring at the camera, was acting out a murder for the audience, which is then revealed to be an act. She spends the rest of the film trying to make amends for this betrayal.

99 River Street is a tale of middling talents who can never catch a break, having to repress their natural skills just to get by. Without the physical outlet of boxing, Driscoll is a man in the process of mastering his rage and never quite getting there. In the final showdown, when Driscoll is facing up to the scummy Victor Rawlins, a voice-over intrudes for the first time in the film, as Payne, shot in the arm and fading fast, repeats the mantra, “I have to get him”. It’s the climax to all of those intrusive close-ups showing his decaying exterior,  a jarring device that peeks into the mind of a man who defines himself by his body.


September 15, 2009


September 25th is Phil Karlson night on TCM, as they’ll be screening three of his tight-lipped noirs along with a rare  B-musical, Ladies of the Chorus. He’s one of the many unsung talents from the studio system, and I’ve been entranced with his work since I saw The Phenix City Story, a docu-drama so precisely detailed the stench of corruption wafts off the screen in pungent waves (it airs at 9:45PM on the 25th). So whenever a Karlson comes across my radar, I devour it. Which brings me to 1967′s A Time For Killing, a film which I watched on TCM a few months back, but which is also available for  purchase on iTunes (the TCM master is in the correct 2.35 aspect ratio, but the iTunes listing says their version is full-screen).

Karlson is credited as the sole director, but the movie was originally developed by Roger Corman under the title The Long Ride Home, hot on the heels of The Wild Angels and The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. It was the first film in a new multi-picture deal Corman made with Columbia Pictures. It was based on the novel The Southern Blade, a Civil War drama written by Nelson and Shirley Wolford, whose adaptation duties he handed to a young Robert Towne, while Monte Hellman was on board as the editor (he was producing Hellman’s The Shooting, released the same year). A few weeks into the production however, Corman was fired, Hellman resigned in protest, and Towne’s script was scrapped.

There is no definitive story regarding his ouster, but Corman biographer Beverly Gray offers the following:

Towne told Corman’s assistant Francis Doel he suspected that the ouster occurred “because Roger insisted on saving money. Roger didn’t understand that, unlike Sam Arkoff or AIP, [Columbia] wouldn’t think any better of him for saving money. In fact, they would think the opposite. They would think that he was going to make them a picture of lesser quality than they were used to.” Doel recalls that when Columbia executives sent Corman lists of equipment they were planning to ship to his Arizona location, he would cross out items he felt weren’t needed. If, for instance, two generators were listed, he would eliminate one, figuring that the remaining generator would work adequately for the length of the shoot. Presumably, this thrifty behavior raised the suspicions of the Columia brass, who feared getting a cheap-looking product.

Essentially, Corman’s DIY ethos clashed with the plush expectations of the Columbia suits. Corman doesn’t say much about the incident, claiming only that he had a “series of disagreements” before leaving the set. Monte Hellman has a more colorful evasion, quoted from Brad Stevens’ biography of the iconoclastic filmmaker:

“I was editor on the film for a couple of weeks, and resigned when Corman was fired. I never saw the film, and have no recollection of which scenes I may have worked on. It’s another CRAFT moment: Can’t Remember A Fucking Thing.”

In any case, Karlson took over the director’s chair, and Halsted Welles (3:10 to Yuma) received sole screenwriting credit. It’s unclear how much of Towne’s script was used in Welles’ version. The cast remained the same, though, and a number of Corman’s cadre of character actors give delightfully eccentric turns: Timothy Carey, Dick Miller, Harry Dean Stanton are all on hand, wielding their jutting-out faces with expressionistic glee. Carey is a bombastic sharpshooter named Billy Cat, Miller a cowardly Union soldier tittering in the corners of frames, while Stanton is a nervous voice of reason on the Confederate side, duly ignored. They provide the colorful background to the dour leads: Glenn Ford and George Hamilton. The contrast is so great between the supporting comedians and the leading brooders, its easy to think that Corman shot most of the former material with his friends and Karlson took over the more psychologically tinged sequences with the latter. But unless someone turns up the production log, it’s impossible to say.

Ford plays Major Wolcott, a quiet type just trying to keep his troops alive as the Civil War winds to a close. He’s stationed at a prisoner-of-war camp, where Confederate Captain Bentley (Hamilton) is held with a gaggle of good ol’ boys. Wolcott is in love with a missionary, Emily Biddle (Inger Stevens), who he sends away from the camp because it’s too dangerous.  Bentley and his gang soon break out, run down Biddle’s wagon train and take her hostage. Wolcott is sent out to track them down, just as the war is rumored to be coming to a close.

The script sets up the chase as a study in vengeance. At the open, Wolcott attempts to temper the bloodthirstiness of his Colonel, who orders a brutal execution of a Confederate prisoner. He requests that the search be called off for the escaped prisoners, since the South was expected to surrender at any minute. The colonel insists, Wolcott leaves, and the film tracks the Major’s slow descent into the cycle of vengeance that has enveloped everyone else.

Corman & Karlson keep much of the action in long shot, subordinated to the landscape and the fates that are driving them towards death. Even fight scenes are fought in long shot, including a series of duels between two bickering Confederates. The first takes place in the desert, starting with laughter and ending with knives drawn. Their rage is made small by the camera’s distance, rendered as just a symptom of the disease devouring both sides of the war. For punctuation, Karlson/Corman cut in to distorted extreme close-ups, underlining further Bentley and Wolcott’s psychological breakdown. By the end of the film, when Major Wolcott barrels his way into Mexico, recklessly leading his men to certain death in order to satisfy a personal vendetta, brittle Dick Miller, who runs off with his pal to avoid further combat, turns out to be the smartest soldier in town.